KILLER WAVE TOLL TOPS 1,500 IN PAPUA NEW GUINEA

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By Brian Woodley

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (July 20, 1998 - The Australian)---More than 1,500 people are believed dead and thousands more have been left injured, homeless and threatened by disease, after a huge tidal wave devastated a 30 kilometer (18 mile) stretch of Papua New Guinea's remote north-west coast at the weekend.

At least seven heavily populated coastal villages near the regional center of Aitape were destroyed when the 10 meter (33 foot) tidal wave -- " triggered by an undersea earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale" -- struck suddenly on Friday night.

Many of the dead are reported to be children.

The Australian Geological Survey Organization's Kevin McCue said the tidal wave, or tsunami, was the most destructive to hit the south-west Pacific this century.

He warned there was a good chance of another in the temblor-prone region.

"A feature of earthquakes is that they occur in swarms and in this region they often come in doublets, so you have one and then another, almost identical, within days to weeks," Mr. McCue said.

Papua New Guinea's geophysical observatory detected two earthquakes registering 7.0 on the Richter scale, while the Australian monitoring body measured one quake of that magnitude at 6.49 p.m. on Friday.

As a joint RAAF and Australian army medical team was rushed into the region yesterday, the true horror of the tragedy began to emerge.

There were harrowing eyewitness accounts of corpses rotting on beaches and choking waterways, and of survivors dying by the score in swamps as they waited in vain for medical attention.

The official death toll last night was 600 but, with many people still missing, officials say the figure is certain to rise.

The tidal wave destroyed the villages of Sissano, Teles, Arop, Ilil, Warapu, Malol and Pera Nambis, as well as roads, bridges, government buildings and a Catholic mission station and church.

Two of the villages, on a spit of land between the ocean and Sissano lagoon, disappeared in the tidal wave. Each had been home to more than 2,000 people.

"Their houses were destroyed, their families were destroyed. They were just blown into the lagoon," Aitape businessman Rob Parer said last night.

"They swam to the other side of the lagoon -- "1 kilometer in parts, 2 kilometers in other parts -- " and they've just got there with their injuries and are just lying in swamps waiting for help."

Mr. Parer said there was no warning the tidal wave was on its way.

"I heard this huge, monstrous noise and said: 'What the hell is that?'," Mr. Parer said.

"It was like a jet taking off and then I knew it was a tidal wave. If it had come from another direction, it would have wiped the town of Aitape out as well."

Mr. Parer said one man had told him of putting 20 injured together in one area on Saturday but yesterday morning they were all dead.

"If we had 50 helicopters yesterday we could have saved another 100 lives or so, but they would have died overnight."

At the Raihu Health Center in Aitape, Menno Swier said medical supplies and surgeons were in desperate need.

"We're running out of antibiotics ... we're running out of organic drip material," Dr. Swier said. "We need blood banks and we need surgeons to operate on all these people."

Dr. Swier said the main injuries were broken arms and legs but many people were bleeding from internal wounds.

District disaster coordinating chairman Dickson Dalle said it was impossible to say how many people were missing.

"They are scattered all over in the mangroves," Mr. Dale said.

"But we have assumed that the schools in Arrow, the schools in Scission and the schools in Warp will be closed because we don't have the children.

"They're dead ... they're all dead."

In Port Moresby last night, a charter pilot said the physically able survivors had spent most of yesterday burying the dead.

"It is a grim task but they are going about it calmly and as best they can," Michael Butler said. "There is no hysteria out there.

"It's as if the shock of what happened has brought a strange calm to the area."

Mr. Butler said there was no escaping the overwhelming sense of death when he flew into the area on Saturday.

"I was aware of heaps of bodies floating in the water but I was too scared to look down," he said.

© News Limited 1998

 

PAPUA NEW GUINEA TSUNAMI KILLS 70 VILLAGERS

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (July 18, 1998 - The Australian News Network)---A tsunami slammed into a remote area of north-west Papua New Guinea, killing at least 70 people and obliterating entire villages, the country's National Disaster Center said yesterday.

The 7-meter-high wave hit the coast near the town of Aitape between 8:00 p.m. and 8.30 p.m. on Friday night just after the area was rattled by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation said.

The disaster center said late last night that hundreds of people were still missing and thousands were without food and shelter.

While authorities officially have put the death toll from the wave at 70, there were unconfirmed reports that dozens more may have been killed.

"We expect that about 3,000 people have been made homeless and there has been an estimate of about 300 people dead or missing," Father Austin Crapp, a relief organizer, told the ABC.

He said most of the dead were children who drowned.

The disaster control authorities said the tidal wave followed an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale 20-30 kilometers off the coast about an hour earlier.

Australia has responded to the disaster by pledging transport for relief supplies and a mobile hospital.

In a press statement yesterday, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said an RAAF C130 Hercules aircraft, currently in PNG on training exercises, would be diverted to deliver relief supplies such as tarpaulins and food to the affected areas.

"We will also transport a mobile hospital and associated Australian Defense Force medical personnel to the disaster area to provide urgent medical assistance to injured victims," Mr. Downer said.

Mr. Downer said the Federal Government would consider further requests for assistance from the PNG Government.

Disaster authorities in Port Moresby said the wave caused the greatest damage in the four villages of Sissano, Warapu, Arop and Malol. The area, in West Sepik province, is dotted with small villages consisting of homes that are built on beaches and made of jungle-based materials.

"At Warapu, there is no house standing; it's a village of 1,800 people," Father Crapp said. "Arop, again, is 1,800 to 2,000 people; there's nothing standing there. They (the two villages) are both clean sand. It's complete devastation."

A helicopter pilot who landed in Aitape yesterday reported seeing bodies floating among the debris in the lagoon, he said.

Papua New Guinea provincial disaster coordinator Peter Tavun said survivors were in desperate need of food and shelter. A helicopter was picking up injured people and taking them to a mission hospital at Aitape, where doctors had been flown in to treat them. Most of the injured had cuts and fractures.

Rob Parer, a businessman who lives near Aitape, said some villagers who fled into the jungle after the wave struck were still hiding there.

"The people have never heard of anything like it. They thought the world had ended," Parer told ABC.

Because of the difficulty of establishing communication links with the region, the full extent of the disaster was unlikely to become clear for some time.

The disaster comprised three waves that hit the shore in a matter of minutes of each other. But because they came at night, there was more panic than there might otherwise have been, Crapp said.

"In the dark, people were screaming, yelling and looking for people," he said.

The last such wave in the area was in 1930 when a magnitude 6.5 earthquake struck the Admiralty Islands, seismologists said.

© News Limited 1998

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